Wyeth, born in Wilmington, Delaware, was raised in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania amidst a family enclave of accomplished artists. The family lineage of artists includes his grandfather N. C. Wyeth; his father Andrew; and aunts Carolyn, Henriette, and Ann. Jamie attended public school through sixth grade and then was home-schooled to fulfill secondary education requirements. From early childhood onward, Jamie’s talents were nurtured under the tutelage of his gifted family. His aunt Carolyn Wyeth was his first formal art teacher. His father Andrew assumed a less structured approach, offering him the creative freedom to work on whatever he chose but guided his work through constructive criticism.
When Jamie reached the age of seventeen, his father was so confident in his painting skills that he recommended him for his first portrait commission. Andrew, citing prior commitments, had declined a commission to paint the portrait of Helen Taussig, the renowned pediatric cardiologist, and recommended that Jamie be considered for the commission. Cardiologists who had been trained by Taussig raised the funds for the portrait. Following Andrew’s suggestion, they commissioned Jamie to undertake the portrait of their beloved mentor. He painted the portrait of Taussig in the summer of 1963 while she was at her vacation home on Cape Cod. From various accounts the sittings appear to have gone smoothly between artist and sitter but the unveiling of the finished portrait at Johns Hopkins was not well received.
In May 1964, the portrait was presented at a reunion of Taussig’s cardiology fellows. There was a collective gasp and even tears among the audience of former fellows who were jolted by the stark realism of the portrait. It seems that they had anticipated a portrait that would incorporate their fond vision of the sitter. Instead the artist had executed a vividly accurate portrayal of the subject that was untempered by feelings of warm and long acquaintance. Another aspect of this disconnect is generational. Although Jamie was a masterful painter at the age of seventeen, his perception of the aging sitter was through the eyes of an adolescent. Nevertheless, his vision of Taussig was psychologically insightful, depicting her resolute determination and strength of character.
Rather than have the Wyeth portrait installed at Johns Hopkins, the fellows turned the portrait over to Taussig. She appears never to have displayed it, but kept it carefully stored in her home. In 1986 after her death, her heirs donated the portrait to the school of medicine. The small band of former fellows who had commissioned the portrait then raised strenuous objections to having the portrait displayed. Richard Ross, a former fellow and also the dean at the time, worked to negotiate a peace agreement. The decision was to deposit the portrait in the medical archives at Johns Hopkins, where it would be installed and maintained by staff.
In 2014, the portrait made its public debut with the permission of the president of The Johns Hopkins University and the dean of the school of medicine in a retrospective exhibit devoted to the work of Jamie Wyeth. Organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the exhibit traveled to three additional venues: Brandywine River Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; San Antonio Museum of Art; and Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Arkansas. From November 2015 to February 2016 the portrait appeared in Wyeth: Andrew and Jamie in the Studio which was organized by the Denver Art Museum.